Thomism going off the rails?

Longtime readers know that I align myself with the broadly Aristotelian tradition.  So while it wouldn’t be strictly true to call me a Thomist, I do find myself on the same side as the Thomists in most disputes, and I have a high regard for them and their master.  In that spirit, I’d like to address what seems to me a case where Thomism (at least as applied by its current practitioners) seems to produce highly implausible conclusions.

It has to do with the origin of life on Earth and the origin of human souls at conception.  The normal, scientific account of these processes would be that these things emerge from “lower” forms of matter (the first life form, a self-replicating molecule, from simpler organic molecules; a human being with a soul from the fusion of two living but nonsentient gametes) following the normal laws of chemistry.  No doubt there are gaps in our current understanding of how this happens, but they don’t seem to be insuperable issues, and I expect these gaps will be filled in time.  For the origin of life, for instance, the question is not possibility, but whether the hypothetical process would happen quicky enough to explain the emergence of life on Earth.  Of course, the formation of humans from gametes happens all the time.

Thomists such as Edward Feser, claiming to speak for the consensus of Thomists, assert that these scenarios of emergence from lower orders of being is, even if scientifically credible, metaphysically impossible.  Life is qualitatively distinct from nonlife, and a being with an immortal soul is qualitatively distinct from beings with out immortal souls.  Beings can’t give what they don’t have.  Therefore, life can’t come from nonlife; sentience can’t come from nonsentience.  God must have produced the first life forms and every human soul directly, not through secondary causality (for no secondary causes could have these effects).

Now, this Thomist dictim of “can’t create what you don’t possess” would seem to be violated all the time, and Thomists’ aren’t stupid.  So they introduce a distinction:  a being can create forms of being that it posesses in some virtual way.  (The standard example is a builder who has an idea of the building in his head and builds from that idea.)  Now, if this virtual possession of X just means “having the ability to create X”, then–as Feser notes–then the “can’t give what you haven’t got” rule reduces to a tautology.  So he says that virtual possession of X must mean a real aptitude to do X.  Since we don’t observe nonlife creating life, nonlife must lack virtual possession of life, so creation of life from nonlife must be impossible.  I admit that this seems like a really bad argument to me.  Conditions on Earth are much different than they were four billion years ago, so Feser shouldn’t extrapolate his day-to-day experiences so recklessly.  Also, I see no reason why a chemical reaction cannot be possible but sufficiently improbable that its results form on a very long timescale.  One could call this speculation, but not metaphysical impossibility.  In any event, according to the Thomists, it doesn’t matter if chemists provide a sequence of reactions, each of which is consistent with the known laws of quantum mechanics, culminating in an RNA or DNA molecule.  This reaction sequence won’t happen unless God does something other than His normal preserving action.

The claim that each soul is made directly by God is, of course, not just a Thomist position.  Pope John Paul II, I believe, indicated his belief in this position, although I don’t think he ever used his authority to compel the rest of us to believe it.  While not without motivation, it is an odd claim, as it would mean that God is forced to intervene outside secondary causality regularly in the operations of His world just to keep it going.  Every time a sperm and egg meet, God must perform an action completely aside from keeping the natural beings involved in being and operation.  What if He should decide just once not to bother performing this extra miracle when a human egg is fertilized?  Will the result be a human being without a soul?  A zombie, say:  someone who acts human but has no qualia?  Of course, Thomists like Feser don’t think zombies are possible.  Following Thomas, he believes that it’s not qualia, but comprehension of universals that shows the soul’s immaterial operation.  So presumably the result would be a person with senses and feelings, but no ability for abstract thought?  Or would the normal biological processes fail to operate absent the regularly-occuring miracle?  Would the sperm just bounce off the egg without God’s direct intervention?

The strange thing in both these cases is that it seems like constant divine intervention is required, not to suspend the regular operation of nature, but to keep it going.  We usually think of the laws of nature (physics, chemistry, biology) as describing how secondary causes in the world work.  If I’m understanding Feser correctly, these laws sometimes make predictions (the formation of life from nonliving nucleic acids, the formation of a complete human being at conception) that are metaphysically impossible for secondary causes.  The laws of chemistry are not broken in these cases only because of regularly occuring divine miracles!

I admit that I don’t see why this couldn’t be the case, but doesn’t it sound a bit crazy?

9 Responses

  1. The universe and our Earth in general seem so suspended in improbability that it seems to me it would have to be sustained by some great power to continue existing. Just the tenuous and unlikely nature of intelligent life suggests that point of view to me.

  2. “…for by Him all things consist and are held together”…

  3. From the idea that God is the primal cause (causa prima) and the prime mover (motor primus), Thomists conclude that every act and every movement of the thoroughly contingent secondary causes (causae secundae) or creatures must emanate from the first cause, and that by the application of their potentiality to the act. Thus, I have the power of seeing, but, without a divine premotion, I cannot perform an act of seeing, for nothing can move itself from potency to act.

    God eternally decrees, not only the events that come to pass, but the causes of them and the order in which those causes operate. This is why Thomists equate God’s foreknowledge with his knowledge of his own will. Hence, the famous argument between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over whether God knows counter-factual hypotheticals – What a person’s life would have been, had he not died in infancy, for example. Of course the Dominicans denied it and the Jesuits affirmed it.

    The implications for the debate over grace and free will is obvious enough.

    From this it follows that the special creation of the individual soul is no more a miracle than a branch swaying in the wind is a miracle; it, too, requires a divine premotion. The difference is that the (rational) soul is not formed from pre-existing matter.

    Your speculation “So presumably the result would be a person with senses and feelings, but no ability for abstract thought?” runs into a further difficulty. The ecumenical council of Vienne defines the rational soul as the form of the body, thus condemning the notion of a vegetative soul (with powers of assimilation, organization and generation) and an animal soul (with powers of appetite, sensation and locomotion) preceding or coexisting in man with the rational soul: a position held by some Averroists. The rational soul is not something tacked onto a subsistent body, as Descartes thought; it is, in man, the sole and simple vital principle.

  4. excellent response Michael PS, it is very easy for us to fall into viewing the soul/body relationship incorrectly.

  5. Hello Michael PS,

    I actually agree with you (and the council of Vienne) that one can’t split up the soul this way. My thinking was that if that’s what the Thomist position on special creation of the soul leads to, there is obviously something wrong with it. It seems that it is they who are falling into dualism when they say that nature can make bodies, but only God can make souls.

    You say that the creation of a soul is no more miraculous “than a branch swaying in the wind”, but obviously Thomists like Feser see a big difference. In the latter case, the act of swaying is supposedly contained “eminently” or “virtually” in the wind (presumably via its kinetic energy) so that it can impart this form onto the branch, while in the former case, the form is supposed to be imparted directly by God without such an intermediary. I didn’t just invent this difference. In fact, it would seem more “natural” to me for both the generation of life and of souls to be part of the natural order, caused by God only in the way everything else is. I admit that I can’t prove it, but I have a strong prejudice that the order of secondary causes should form a closed system (albeit one that must be constantly activated from outside).

  6. I’m not nearly well-educated enough to participate in this fully, but I note that the immediate creation each human soul is listed in Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, as sententia certa.

    Also, see CCC 382: “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity” (GS 14 § 1). The doctrine of the faith affirms that the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God.”

  7. Hi Brock,

    Thanks for that information. It seems the claim is backed by more authority than I realized. Does it say anywhere in these documents precisely what is meant by “immediately”? I expect it’s what we’re both thinking–not through material secondary causes–but I’d like to be sure.

  8. Um. Like I said, I’m too ignorant to do much more than read with great interest. However, I note that there is a partial copy of Ott online – see for example

    and search for “4. Creationism”, which addresses the issue at hand.

    Note that the “D” numbers given (e.g. “D 738”) are references to Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma, online at

    Also, here’s St Thomas’s take on the question in the Summa:

    If I understand this at all (which is doubtful), he’s saying that rational souls are different from all other forms because they’re subsistent.

    Also, I note that Ott lists “God co-operates immediately in every act of His creatures.” as sent. communis. See

  9. The old Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Hence, although there are no strict definitions condemning Generationism as heretical, it is certainly opposed to the doctrine of the Church, and could not be held without temerity.”

    So, it is not de fide, but “opposed to the doctrine [doctrinal system?] of the Church”–a pretty dangerous place to be.

    I favor generationism or traducianism. Offspring not only inherit physical attributes of their natural parents but also mental and spiritual attributes also.

    Levi was in the loins of Abraham when Abe was blessed by Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews argues from this that Levi’s priesthood is inferior to the Melchizedekian order (Heb. 7:10). This passage has great significance for discussions relating to the relation between person and office.

    IMO, If a theologian could devise a traducianist formulation that preserves the indivisibility of spirit and guards against making spirit dependent on matter, traducianism would largely be rehabilitated.

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